Brian Ashton: Time to raise the tempo after snowshoe shuffle
Tackling The Issues
Saturday 18 February 2012
Last Saturday evening, after a couple of pints of real ale and a quick bar meal with family and friends, I made my way home and settled down in front of the television with a glass of Jack Daniel's, ready for the France-Ireland kick-off. More fool me.
Maybe I should have stayed in the pub; certainly, I should have believed the wise words of the Toulouse wing Vincent Clerc, who, fully five days previously, had indicated via social media that there might be serious problems with the pitch at Stade de France, due to the freezing weather. If I didn't pay proper attention, it seems the Six Nations hierarchy didn't either. Do the decision-makers in our sport ever listen to the players?
Poor old Dave Pearson, the English referee charged with making the postponement decision, will want to forget the last couple of weeks, having been caught in the middle of every major controversy affecting the tournament over its opening rounds. An official's job is not easy at the best of times. When the people who wield administrative power are doing their best to sidestep responsibility, it becomes very difficult indeed.
At least they got something going in Rome. Snow is rarely on the agenda in the Italian capital, but when England flew into the country they were welcomed by considerable amounts of the stuff. Still, conditions were the same for both sides, and blow me down if England didn't scramble another win, thereby dodging a banana skin for the second time in as many weeks.
I caught a whiff of disappointment in some of the media commentary, which in turn left me a little disappointed. I readily agree that it was an attritional game in which the weather influenced the mindsets of the rival decision-makers: certainly, there was a running theme along the lines of "let's give the ball to the opposition as often as possible and see what they can do with it in the snow": a theme that prevailed for most of the contest. But after a wobbly period before the break and an outbreak of indiscipline after it, during which the Azzurri built a handy 15-6 lead, England decided it might be worth playing a bit. This coincided with the introduction of the go-forward Ben Morgan and the up-tempo Lee Dickson, along with the temporary incapacitation of Italy's best player, Sergio Parisse. Having dragged themselves back into the game, England had Owen Farrell's dead-eye goal-kicking to decide matters.
I'm pretty sure that England have been working hard on developing a more challenging attacking strategy over the last few days, having paid careful attention to the footage from Stadio Olimpico. Stuart Lancaster has said he wants to play with dynamism, with changes of tempo and variety of width. What he needs to bring to the mix now, ahead of next weekend's meeting with a dangerous Wales team, is clarity and simplicity of method, while securing complete cooperation of the players.
At this point, we should remember the remarks of the flanker Tom Croft some weeks ago: those fine words about senior players being prepared to take more responsibility in helping determine style and strategy. Many of the squad, including a good number of the more experienced hands, come from club environments where the qualities under discussion are not first on the agenda. The heavy-duty, collision-bound approach of many Premiership sides does not translate effectively to the international game.
One of the keys has to be a more enlightened approach to continuity. Contact drills in reduced space on the training field are not the answer: different ball-carrying options need to be explored. There are many ways to test defenders, an example being the use of the early-ball offload, but too often we see what I would describe as the defender's dream: the man in possession running straight into the tackler – frequently more than one tackler – before going to ground for the ensuing free-for-all.
Establishing and maintaining width on the pitch is, I suspect, another work-on element in England's preparation for their next big game. The English forward mentality of wanting to be herded by the scrum-half into constant round-the-corner rumbles is just about acceptable as an occasional alternative, but entirely unacceptable as a default. Defenders can just as easily herd people into narrow areas of the pitch, from where there is no escape except through the box-kick. A framework is required in which players are encouraged to look up and make informed decisions as to where and how they can best serve the team. At the moment, England's attacking game resembles the Welsh version of a year ago, generally consisting of meandering lateral moves from one touchline to the other.
Wales are beginning to shape up nicely and they'll head to Twickenham with confidence, not least because there are signs of growing maturity about them. I am struck by the fact that we have yet to be subjected to any banal "mind-game" stuff designed to do... quite what, I'm not sure. It seems to me that this stuff backfires more often than not.
In defensive terms, the Welsh line-speed is outstanding. They also reset quickly and contest the ball intelligently, pressuring the first receiver and using a pincer movement from outside the No 13 channel to contain attacks in a narrow area. Attack-wise, they have much more balance and variety, and their direct, abrasive running invariably tests their opponents' first-up tackling discipline.
Last weekend in Cardiff, mind you, they were helped by Scotland's remarkable ability to press the self-destruct button after half-time. Having played with pace and width in reaching the interval all-square, Andy Robinson's side spent the next 16 minutes losing the game. They also suffered the indignity of having a perfectly good try disallowed.
In closing, a postscript on events – or rather, non-events – in Paris. When our Irish friend in Lytham learnt from the BBC broadcaster John Inverdale that the game would not go ahead, she sent a text message of commiseration to her brother, who was in the stadium. To her astonishment, what she actually did was break the bad news to him. It seems the 80,000-plus paying spectators were the last to learn what the heck was going on. What a way to run a major sporting event.
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